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November 20, 2006

The Play's the Thing, remember - Lincoln Allison unmasks the true author of Shakespeare's plays, William Shakespeare: The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare - Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare
by Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein
Pp. 360. London: Pearson Longman, 2005 (paperback, 2006)
Hardback, 25; Paperback, 12.99

William D. Rubinstein has made the case - both on these pages, Is Sir Henry Neville the true author of Shakespeare's plays? and William Shakespeare and Sir Henry Neville: A conspiracy or an agreement? and as the joint author of The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare - that Sir Henry Neville was the real author of Shakespeare's plays. Here Lincoln Allison argues that the assumptions - about education and class - behind William D Rubinstein's, and other similar, claims are deeply flawed.

On more than one occasion at a conference I have been buttonholed by someone who has insisted on informing me, with a glint in their eye, that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were not actually written by him but by someone else. And they have thrust a volume into my hand which allegedly "proves" that to be the case. The thrusters have invariably been American and the candidate for authorship has usually been Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

When I have politely perused the "evidence" I have invariably concluded that the author's understanding of a) how the world works in general and b) how it worked specifically in the years 1564 - 1616 is completely different from my own. For example, they didn't really understand what a grammar school was or how unimportant universities were or the difference between a town and a village. Or they didn't understand that the pub was the chief means of transferring and developing the culture, ahead of the church and a long way in front of any formal educational institutions.

So here we go again. Exit the Earl of Oxford, enter Sir Henry Neville (1562? - 1615) who was at least a fairly exact contemporary of Shakespeare.

This is not a review of the book, but it is an attack on the (ludicrous) assumptions which lie behind the argument put by William D. Rubinstein that an actor from Stratford could not have written "the plays of William Shakespeare". (The argument that Neville did write them is Ms James department.) Thus:

. . . over the past century and a half, many intelligent and perceptive persons have come to doubt whether William Shakespeare of Stratford, the man who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616, and who was unquestionably an actor and theatre-owner in London as well as a businessman and landowner in Stratford, could conceivably have written the plays and poems attributed to him.
[p. 3]

. . . Shakespeare lacked the educational background or Court and political connections which the author of the plays must have possessed.
[p. 4]

. . . the most serious (problem) is the extraordinary inconsistency between the verbal facility of Shakespeare's work and the limited educational background of the man from Stratford.
[p. 4]

. . . The education Shakespeare received at Stratford Grammar School, though wide-ranging in some respects, would be viewed with despair by modern educational theorists. [LA - and vice-versa] . . Recalcitrant scholars would have been beaten at the drop of a hat by the schoolmaster. [LA - they'd cut out the hat-dropping part by my time.]
[all p. 5]

. . . how did the Stratford man, an itinerant actor whose formal education probably ended at the age of 12 (and did not include any instruction in modern languages), conceivably obtain, read or use the many, varied and expensive works, which he must have read and digested?
[p. 9]

And so it goes on. In contemporary philosophy it is sometimes known as the Nozickian manoeuvre: you start with a wildly false assumption which your reader goes along with since he or she has bought the book or at least bothered to pick it up and then you construct several hundred pages of argument which is, in itself, valid, but based on your ludicrous premise. It is like Flat Earthism or Creationism.

Here the manoeuvre is played twice: first we are asked to share the assumption that there is a major "mystery" about William Shakespeare and second that he could not have acquired the knowledge to write the plays without formal education. There is, of course, a mystery in a trivial sense insofar as we don't know much about Shakespeare and that, especially, we don't know where he was between 1582 and 1590. But there is no mystery about why there is a mystery! Why should we know anything more about him than we know about his contemporaries?

John Webster's plays are still produced, but we don't even know when he was born or when he died. And it is mildly amusing that we don't even seem to know the date of birth of the high-born Neville.

Nor is it strange that references to Shakespeare in Stratford at the end of his life and afterwards don't mention his occupation. Nor do those to his contemporaries - Thomas Dekker is listed as a "householder", for example - and we must remember that they were only playwrights and probably not particularly proud of it. A much greater question concerns something which Rubinstein does not deny: how did a glover/butcher/whatever's son get involved in the theatre in the first place?

I find the assumptions made about Shakespeare's education completely weird. If he went to Stratford Grammar he would have been one of the more educated members of the population and certainly literate. That's all he would have needed, plus a certain amount of commitment and talent. Since we don't know where he was from the age of 18 to 26 it is pointless to say that "there is no evidence" that he had access to books or educated companionship or the speaking of French by Huguenot refugees. Or anything else, for that matter - no knowing is not knowing.

But let's assume, since we don't even know that, that he didn't go to grammar school and didn't either, like many of his contemporaries, have himself taught to be literate by other means. That he remained illiterate, in short, and made up brilliant stuff which was written down by an amanuensis. Nobody is denying, I assume, that it is possible to be brilliantly eloquent whilst being illiterate. You certainly don't need to read books to be knowledgeable.

Actually, I should say that unlike Shakespeare I did attend university (in Oxford) and received my highest mark for an examination answer on an aspect of the thought of Immanuel Kant. I hadn't read the material in question and I never intend to (and I certainly don't understand German), but I had had a very good conversation in a pub with a clever person who had read it and I was entirely clear about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. To those who think that this is not relevant, I reply that I think that Shakespeare's handling of ideas - slickly eloquent, with an eye to their stage potential and their relation to character and not much interest in their validity - is exactly analogous to this. Of course, I was not illiterate and had to write my own answer, but if I'd conveniently broken my wrist I could have had an amanuensis. Some people - Lord Mountbatten was said to be one of them - can be enormously knowledgeable and brilliantly analytic without ever reading a book.

So who knows what conversations Shakespeare had in the streets and taverns either of London or wherever he was during the "missing years"? Or what writings or printed materials were passed into his grubby hands? Remember that social mixing was more common than it is now - think of the Boar's Head in Henry IV - and that there was no distinction between high and low cultures in the way that we understand it. (Though there was hostility to learning, as represented by Jack Cade in Henry VI, 2).

At the same time as I could have spun you a good line on Kant I could also have told you a lot about Teheran, its driving habits, traffic problems, women, food, the availability of alcohol, etc. I'd never been, but I had been on a drinking tour of Ireland with a mate who had and I was deeply envious of his achievement in hitching that far. So I have no problem with the amount of Shakespeare's settings which are Italian, even assuming he was never there in the "missing years".

Gobbo: Master young gentleman, I pray you, which is the way to Master Jew's?

Launcelot: Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on the left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew's house.

Gobbo: By God's sonties, 'twill be a hard way to hit . . . [Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 2]

This is reminiscent of the old joke about asking the way in Venice: they say, "sempre diritto", ("Keep straight on") when that's the one thing you can't do. But you wouldn't remotely think that the author of the above lines must have been to Venice: it would only require that he'd had a pint with someone who had. The author's knowledge is pretty limited; for example, he doesn't seem to understand the ghetto, which had been in existence for 80 years at the time of writing. (This is my own example, incidentally, but James and Rubinstein do try to develop something about the generic knowledge of Italy in the plays.)

I find Rubinstein's belief in formal education and his rejection of the possibility of what we would now call "auto-didactism" both staggering and preposterous. It is not only possible to learn anything and everything without formal structures, it is the normal human condition and only a mind imprisoned in the bureaucratic mentality of the modern university could imagine otherwise. Whatever your list of "100 greatest writers" contains, at least fifty of them will have little or no formal education and half the rest will say that what they did get was a waste of time and that (like me) they know a great deal more about the subjects they'd never been taught than those they had!

Apart from the Nozick Manoeuvre the commonest move in the Nonsense Game is the Missing Dimension whereby you attempt to account for something whilst ignoring the existence of some major aspect. For example, in accounting for the First World War you entirely ignore the existence of the Ottoman Empire.

Here the problem is an almost complete failure to take account of Shakespeare's role as part of an incredible golden age of theatrical writing. Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, Philip Massinger, John Webster . . . competition, collaboration, mutual influence, the sense of new worlds to be explored. Put them together with their contemporaries who produced the Authorised Version and with John Donne, Francis Bacon et al. and you have a Golden Age not just of theatre but of language and the creation of language. And most of the new stuff came off the streets, not from the drearily ecclesiastical universities. Shakespeare may have been the pick of the bunch, but they're all good. I will wager that in the 21st century more plays written by the above team have been put on than those written in the whole of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combined.

And Shakespeare was about median in terms of education and social position, yet we are not looking for refined aristocratic minds lying behind any of the rest. (OK, Kit Marlowe, a coachbuilder's son did go to Cambridge on a scholarship, but did it really improve his ability as a playwright?) Three of the above are not mentioned by James and Rubinstein and only Jonson is discussed to any extent; of course, he can't be ignored given his tribute to Shakespeare which has to be explained away.

"Many intelligent and perceptive persons" are said to have doubted Shakespeare's authorship. But perhaps some more intelligent and perceptive persons have seen Shakespeare for what he was. Voltaire, for example, said that Shakespeare was a theatrical genius and that only Lope de Vega could be compared to him. But he also saw that Shakespeare was a vulgarian and a showman,

without the slightest shred of good taste or knowledge of form

sans la moindre eticinelle de bon gout et sans la moindre connaissance des regles.

I think that educated "renaissance" aristocrats of his day would have also regarded him as a vulgarian. Hazlitt, though a fan, is continually shocked by the complete absence of principles in Shakespeare's writing which means (among other things) that he cannot be a gentleman.

The giveaway to understanding the "anti-Stratfordian" mentality is perhaps to be spotted in a passage like this:

While Shakespeare is named in 75 known contemporary documents, not a single one concerns his career as an author. Most are legal and financial documents which depict him as a rather cold, rapacious and successful local landowner, grain merchant and money-lender.
[p. 2]
So he wasn't a soppy modern "intellectual". In fact, he wasn't an intellectual or a philosopher at all, but a showbiz entrepreneur with unavoidable criminal connections. Some people (interestingly, mostly Americans) can't handle this.

You've seen those plays, the most supremely theatrical things ever written. Were they written by Sir Henry Neville, who had a political career, whose time in London was mostly alone in the Tower, who was at one time ambassador to the French Court, who otherwise divided his time between two country estates, who never wrote under his own name, who had little experience of the theatre and who was prepared to suppress any desire for literary fame which might have driven his (considerable) efforts . . . . ? And how would Neville have had the opportunity or the willingness to co-operate in the writing of Sir Thomas More, Edward III and Two Noble Kinsmen (only one of which is mentioned here) which most scholars now believe Shakespeare did?

Or were they written by a streetwise Midland showbiz theatrical entrepreneur, who spent his time bandying and inventing words in the streets and the taverns with the likes of Ben Jonson, Kit Marlowe and the lads and thinking of ways to put bums on seats (or feet on ground)? It's a no-brainer (to use a street expression which Will might have invented given time.) Or, to use the phrase of a contemporary, semi-educated wordsmith:

You cannot be serious . .
Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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Excellent and enjoyable.
Christie Davies

Posted by: christie davies at November 20, 2006 06:44 PM

If the author is the same Wm D Rubinstein who wrote "The Myth of Rescue", then the whole business is very odd, because that other book is a wonderful history, entirely based on a sceptical approach.

Posted by: dearieme at November 20, 2006 08:40 PM

Professor Allison is being rather unrealistic here. Shakespeare, the Stratford man, received no formal education past the age of thirteen, so far as anyone knows. His situation is entirely different from Professor Allison's own. According his c.v. which is on-line, he attended a leading grammar school in the north of England, presumably to the age of eighteen, and did well enough to be admitted to Oxford, where he received a first. I am sure that his grammar school taught a range of subjects and employed excellent teachers. As an academic and a professor, he has written a string of learned books. I think I can claim without any fear of contradiction that Professor Allison would not have published one word of his books, regardless of how often he discussed Kant in a pub, had he dropped out of school at thirteen. Nor was Stratford Grammar School in any way equivalent to a modern grammar school. Its teacher (one, or at most two) taught Latin to the whole school, regardless of age, usually by slapping students with a ruler if they made a mistake. It taught by rote memory, and was strongly reminiscent of fundamentalist schools today in Third World countries. The aim of the school was to instill political and religious conformity among its students. These are precisely the opposite of the values underlying Shakespeare's view of the world. However, this is not the main point. Shakespeare's plays contain references to 200 or 300 ancient and contemporary works which he had read and cited, and many works in foreign languages, some of which had not been translated into English. They are obviously the work of a learned man. Of course, Shakespeare might have been a "genius" who somehow learned Spanish and Italian and poured through obscure ancient texts, but is this really likely? His "lost years" are not entirely "lost." We know that he did not do, for example. He did not attend Oxford or Cambridge Universities, since there are complete lists of students. He must have spent some or possibly most of the time as an apprentice actor in London, as the "accounts" of his early life all claim. This entailed learning and memorizing three or four new play per week, performing them on an open air stage in freezing weather, and frequently going on extensive tours to the provinces. If he also wrote 37 plays as well, apart from being superman, he was very different from his contemporaries who were playwrights, almost none of whom were actors (Marlowe, Beaumont, Fletcher), or were (Ben Jonson) once actors but left the stage to become full-time writers. Most were also university-educated men- Jonson, the exception, was taught by William Camden at Westminster School. How many famous twentieth-century playwrights were actors when they wrote their works, or even before that? It certainly isn't common.However, none of this is really the point.The main basis for my belief that Shakespeare didn't write the works attributed to him is that there is no mesh between the known facts of his life and the evolutionary trajectory of his works. For instance, every biographer of Shakespeare believes that the nature of his works changed radically around 1601, becoming darker and deeper, and strongly suggesting some traumatic experience at the time. This accords with absolutely nothing in Shakespeare's life. Over and over again, as you will see if you read The Truth Will Out, the trajectory of Shakespeare's works meshes perfectly with the life of Sir Henry Neville, whose life and career have extraordinary explanatory power in explaining these changes, unlike Stratford Will. Finally, I am the indeed the author of The Myth of Rescue, and also have a monthly on-line column on this site, the SAU.

Posted by: William D. Rubinstein at November 22, 2006 08:36 AM

Where do I begin? Uneducated actor-playwrights: start with Sir Harold Pinter (Nobel laureate 2005) and work backwards. The "trajectory" argument is interesting, but extremely vague and ignores the modern emphasis on mood and personality change being chemical in origin.
Actually, I'm sure my only chance of writing anything significant disappeared (in the same way as many other people's) when I took the easy option and embarked on an academic career.
So I don't ever like to be addressed as "Professor", a word which gives the impression that you are claiming expertise when I'm just expressing common sense.

Posted by: Lincoln Allison at November 22, 2006 02:55 PM

Thanks for the comments. I don't want to string this out, but in The Truth Will Out we match up Sir Henry Neville's life with the accepted chronology and evolution of Shakespeare's works, and show how they always mesh up. Of course Hamlet might have been the product of Shakeaspeare's hypoglycemia or alcoholism, but wouldn't it be better to have a rational explanation, based in the author's actual life experiences? We argue that Neville wrote Hamlet in the Tower (which he could, since he was a privileged prisoner) just after the collapse of the Essex rebellion in 1601, and that it is "about" the Essex rebellion, for which Neville was jailed indefinitely, next to his close friend Southampton, and had to pay a huge fine. There are innumerable facts about Shakespeare's works which simply cannot be readily explained by the known facts of his life. For instance, The Tempest of 1611 is based in part on the Strachey Letter, sent by the secretary of the London Virginia Company's expedition to Virginia which was shipwrecked in Bermuda, back to London in 1610. It was a confidential business report on the Bermuda shipwreck which was apparently circulated only to the Company's directors, and was not published until 1625.
Shakespeare had no known connection with the London Virginia Company, and was not among the 570 men who had bought a share in the Company, costing twelve pounds- there are complete lists. He was probably living full time in Stratford. Yet he somehow read a confidential business report issued to the Company's directors and used it in a play. Please explain. Neville was a director of the Company and the year before his son had married the niece of the Virginia Company's (in effect) Managing Director. There are dozens of other points like this. There is a genuine problem with accepting Shakespeare as the author at face value which increasing numbers of people have realized. Some of them might be fruitcakes, but not all! I am a total believer in common sense, too!

Posted by: william D. Rubinstein at November 24, 2006 09:08 AM

I suppose we should finish this, but I would insist that the "commonsense" answer to "How did Shakespeare know x or y?" has got to be "Dunno, but lots of ways are possible." I am not enough of a scholar to dispute the Strachey letter, but, as William Rubinstein surely knows, alternative explanations were offered in the reviews of the book.
It is interesting how & why the identity is contested and I suspect partly as a question of national identity. My instinct is to want him to be a sort of Midlands garage owner de ses jours.

Posted by: Lincoln Allison at November 27, 2006 09:19 AM

It seems that in order to deprive Shakespeare of the authorship of his works, one must ignore a lot of plain facts. Is a hoax the best way to explain the First Folio? Were Ben Jonson, Hemings & Condell, the publisher and patrons, all playing a trick on the world? And all to protect Sir Henry Neville? Ludicrous.

Posted by: Ernest Helliwell at December 26, 2006 08:49 PM

The book "The Truth Will Out" got me interested in Shakespeare for the first time! Consequently I must have spent 500 hours reading around the subject, and considering other possibilities.

Top of my list of possibilities that help further explain what might have gone on is that Elizabeth had quite a number of children, which were placed by Cecil with families close to him or Elizabeth. (Henry VIII had a number of illegitimate children that were placed in noble families, as did other kings around Europe at that time, and in the 17th century. If they could do it, why couldn't she?)

Oxford was Elizabeth's first unplanned child, which she had when she was just 13 or 14. Oxford was given a very privileged education that included at least 6 months in Venice. He wrote the proto plays that his half brother (Shakespeare/Neville) with a similar education and Venetian experience rewrote a decade or two later. Bacon could have been one of Elizabeth's children, as well as Neville, Essex and Southampton. It sounds too farfetched? Read Shakespeare !!! They all had red hair, and faces similar to Elizabeth!

There were several reports that Elizabeth had children (some still exist in archives in places like Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam and Venice), that were understandably repressed by the whole machinery of state. When Elizabeth died at least three of her sons were still alive. "Shakespeare" put a lot of it in the plays. Reread King Lear, with everything turned upside down!

It is not surprising that it was totally surpressed - Cecil's son took over from Cecil senior - and kept his position under James until he died. Why did James keep him? There were a lot of secrets that needed to be kept locked down - and the plays were a way to get some of them out - and a good way of letting off steam - on behalf of all of the sons!!

Oxford was fathered by Seymour, the middle lot by Dudley, and Southampton by Oxford !!! - incest too. The end of Elizabeths life was miserable - she executed her favorite son, and put the next two favorites in the Tower. A very sad and miserable end to a glorious life.

When Queen Victoria was presented with the evidence of Elizabeths secret marriage in 1560, she is said to have thrown the evidence in the fire, saying "we must not mess with history" !!

I write this despite being a firm believer in the cock up theory of history. This particular coverup - the mother of all coverups - of Elizabeths children and "Shakespeare" - is the conspiracy that is the exception that proves the cockup theory of history!

You do not believe that Elizabeth could have had so many children? Neville had 11 that survived to adulthood, with one wife. It is very very hard not to have children if you like sex, and are fertile! Clearly I think Elizabeth liked sex and was fertile. Try throwing the dice yourself and work out the probability/possibility for yourself.

Having a son was hugely important in those days, because without one your line would end - so it was not too difficult for Cecil/Elizabeth to persuade well off couples without a male heir to take a healthy baby boy. Both parties has an interest in the arrangement being secret. There was no press in those days, no photography, no telephone, no email or internet. And every single last publication had to be passed by the censor, or you lost your head - and some did.

There are reports of Elizabeth and Dudley visiting Bacon when he was a young boy. I think Dudley adopted Essex - one of his sons by Elizabeth - when the original adoptive father died. Cecil took in Oxford when Oxford's father died, ditto Southampton.

After 4 years at Oxford Neville got sent abroad for FOUR years, aged 17, with his tutor Saville. Why so long? I reckon he had found out that his mother was Elizabeth and he had to be kept away until he could keep his mouth shut !!

Southampton was Neville's little brother - 10 years younger, born when Elizabeth was 40. It could well explain some of the passion in the Sonnets. One of my favorite paintings is of Southampton in the Tower, with his CAT !!

While the portrait was being painted Henry Neville was in the next cell, writing Hamlet - and both of them were under sentence of death, for their part in the Essex plot. The sons were all in on the plot - which would have made James king anyway - and Neville chancellor. Which is why James did not get rid of them when he took on the throne - they had wanted him there enough to risk their own lives.

A complicated theory - but one which answers all the questions that I can throw at the history that I have found out. Shakespearean !!! We have still got some of the bones - we should dig them up and test the theory. It would not suit Queen Victoria - or the current academic or royal world - but I do not think that the "professionals" are the ones who are going to come up with a theory that matches all the extra-ordinary facts.

I am keen on it, because it puts Neville at the center of the last 1000 years of Anglo-Saxon history, because he it was who really got two party democracy going in parliament, who helped establish the USA via the "Virgin"ia colony, who edited the King James Bible, who got the first clean water into London with his New River that I have seen still running into London, nearly 400 years after it was built, and who tried to restructure the taxation system that caused our civil war.

Anybody who could write the very particular and special plays that are the works of "Shakespeare" was a seriously bright, enlightened and moral person - not the guy from Stratford who did not teach his two daughters to read, who took people to court for small sums of money, whose ultimate dream was to own a big house near Stratford and not do anything of significance in the last years of his life.

Posted by: George Taylor at June 25, 2007 09:35 PM
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